My old friend Charlie Sykes has a good line about the difference between liberals and conservatives.
"Conservatives," he says, "think liberals are wrong. Liberals," he adds, "think conservatives are evil."
It's a point well taken. The left does tend to demonize the right. That this is a vice-versa proposition makes it no less unsavory.
One thing I've learned over the years is that conservatives can be intelligent, perceptive, even caring and compassionate (in addition to being wrong). There is much to admire in their hardscrabble, self-reliant view of the world.
Not so with Barron County Judge Michael Gableman, the undistinguished conservative challenging Justice Louis Butler in the April 1 election for state Supreme Court. Gableman is beyond wrong. More than any other person I've encountered in 25 years of covering politics, he deserves to be seen as...if not evil, then certainly its mixed-up cousin, vile.
I'm not saying this lightly. Recently, I went to bat for a Supreme Court conservative against the left's overheated attacks ("In Defense of Annette Ziegler," 1/4/08). I think people slavish in their allegiance to corporate and state power have every right to seek seats on the state Supreme Court.
That Gableman fits this mold has been obvious from the start. He has repeatedly signaled, sometimes overtly, his dissatisfaction with court rulings that minutely expanded the rights of criminal suspects and the ability of injured parties to sue. His message to groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which is spending vast sums on his behalf: Put me on the court, and I'll have your back.
That's fine. That's how our system works. Where Gableman crosses the line is in his willingness to lie to get elected. Not little white lies. Not statements on which reasonable people can disagree. Not things said in error, due to confusion or forgetfulness.
Lies. Outright, brazen, calculated and bald-faced lies.
Everyone knew this was going to be an ugly campaign, but no one anticipated how low Mike Gableman would be willing to go. He is a man without honor, or shame.
Gableman casts his rival as a "judicial activist" who's soft on crime and heedless of the rule of law. That in itself is untrue. Butler and Justice Patrick Crooks are the court's centrists, joining with the majority nearly all the time.
Butler, whose brother is a Miami police officer who took a bullet to the head in the line of duty, has voted to uphold criminal convictions in 97% of the cases that have come before the court. (One measure of how much Gableman has degraded the race is that Butler brags about this.)
An ad run by one of the shadowy conservative groups seeking to install Gableman claims he's "sided with criminals nearly 60% of the time."
The group is lying, and so is its candidate. Gableman signed a pledge promising to "publicly repudiat[e] dishonest negative ads made by independent groups against our opponent." He has not done so.
Gableman is also minting his own falsehoods. He defines New Federalism as "the rights of defendants unbound by anything but the personal political views of the majority of the court." In fact, it is simply the notion, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, that state courts should look to their own constitutions in deciding cases.
Judges and especially justices have a duty to educate the public on matters of law - not set out to deceive them for purely political and self-serving reasons.
A mailing from Gableman's campaign says Butler cast "the deciding vote" that led to "the release" of a sexual predator (see "Mud Is Flying in Supreme Court Race," 3/14/08). In fact, the predator was never released. Gableman refuses to admit the statement is wrong. He's lying.
But Gableman's most egregious transgression against truth and decency is his ad picturing Butler alongside a black rapist. The ad says Butler found a "loophole" in the law, after which the man raped again. An ominous voice-over asks, "Can Wisconsin families feel safe with Louis Butler on the Supreme Court?"
In fact, the man served his full sentence on the first offense. Butler, then with the state Public Defender's Office, had won the man the right to a new trial, but the Supreme Court reinstated his conviction.
The ad has left most observers shocked - not by Butler's behavior, but Gableman's lack of scruples.
"I am troubled that a candidate for our highest court would belittle our constitutional right to counsel," wrote Dodge County District Attorney Steven G. Bauer, explaining his decision to withdrew his endorsement of Gableman. "I am equally troubled by Gableman's cavalier disregard for accuracy in his representations to the public through this ad. The integrity of the criminal justice system should not be allowed to be tarnished by one man's ambitious desire for higher office."
The Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee, an independent watchdog created by the State Bar, has asked Gableman to pull this "contemptible" and "deliberately misleading" ad and issue an apology. Gableman, whose signed pledge also obliges him to refrain from "personal negative attacks," has not done so.
Sykes, a respectable conservative, was moved to "throw a flag on our own team," in a recent blog post. "The case in the ad is not one Butler handled as a judge or justice." And even as a defense lawyer, Butler played no role in the rapist's eventual release. "So the claim that Butler was somehow responsible for the subsequent rape is completely unfounded."
Wisconsin Citizen Action has filed a complaint against Gableman with the state Judicial Commission. It says he's broken the code that requires judges to act in a way that builds public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.
Clearly, Gableman has defiled that code, and the Judicial Commission should discipline him. The man is not just unfit to be a Supreme Court justice; he is unfit to be a judge, or hold any public office.